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In the sewing room of the Rawlings factory where major-league baseballs are made, 300 people sat in high-backed chairs arranged in 12 rows of 25 chairs each. The scene would have looked like a cross between a classroom and a pre-Industrial Revolution factory, if not for the headphones on the ears of many of the workers and the motion of their arms.
Every few seconds, 600 arms opened and closed like butterfly wings, a movement that seemed as choreographed as a ballet. But its purpose was as paradoxical as the notion of a ballet dancer using only his or her arms. The movement produced an object that means little to its maker.
At the end of one row sat Oscar Rojas, 27, his arms rhythmically moving apart, then together as he pulled silver and black threads through white cowhide. Rojas was securing the cover on one of the 2,400 baseballs that were going to Chicago for Tuesday's All-Star Game.
The threads reflect the colors of the White Sox, host to the game. The idea of butterfly wings reflects Costa Rica, land of la pura vida, which uses the colorful insects as a national emblem, raises them for export and creates habitats for them to delight visitors to national parks like the La Paz waterfall gardens in the volcanic mountains outside San Jose. Without that movement there would be no symbolic relationship between this Central American country and the North American stadiums where the balls will one day fly.
The posters of Alex Rodriguez, Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti and Mike Piazza that hang in front of the sewing room have no significance for most of the workers, who rarely have the time to look at at them. When the names of sluggers Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were mentioned to Rojas, his response was a quizzical look.
"Never heard of them," Rojas said. Sewing floor supervisor Yunerth Garcia knew who Sosa is but did not recognize the name of Bonds or White Sox All-Star Magglio Ordonez.
Forty years ago, Costa Rica had a few decent professional baseball players, only one of whom got as far as Triple A. With every passing year, Costa Rica has become a soccer country, pura vida and simple.
The nation of 3.8 million inhabitants has just 15 baseball fields, only two with seats for spectators, and only 3,000 registered players, from kids to adults. Nearly three-fourths of the players on the eight teams in a first-division league and the 93 teams in eight regional leagues scattered around the country are immigrants from Nicaragua, according to Rodrigo Vargas, president of the Costa Rican Baseball Federation.
The country's other link to baseball is primarily as a haven for the Cuban defectors like Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who stayed in Costa Rica while awaiting professional contract offers.
Cities like Turrialba, which has no team, rarely had seen baseball played before Rawlings moved there--and rarely have seen it since. All the materials that go into the balls are manufactured in the United States and shipped to Turrialba for assembly. Beisbol is made, not nurtured here.
"We know how to make this toy, but we don't know how to play with it," said Francisco Bermudez, longtime manufacturing manager for Rawlings of Costa Rica.
Many of the men who play best with the ball don't know how it is made. Cubs pitcher Mark Prior said he figured everything was done by machine, an idea shared by all but one of several players and coaches questioned about it during a recent Cubs-Brewers series.
"Making them is an art, it really is," said Doug Kralik, former manager of Rawlings' operations in Costa Rica.
Kralik organized baseball clinics for the children of Turrialba, holding them on soccer fields. About 200 kids showed up for the first one, he said. Plans to build a baseball diamond never materialized, and the sport disappeared before it ever gained a foothold.
"Costa Rica never was invaded by Marines, so it never got baseball," Kralik said.
Kralik was gazing out from the terrace of his rented house in the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Turrialba. Two green parrots flew past, followed soon after by two parakeets. An oropendula, with its startlingly yellow tail, flitted through the trees. Birds of paradise were ready to flower. The crimson tassle of ginger flowers already was in bloom. No wonder a nearby town is called Paraiso. If this isn't the Garden of Eden, it must be a suburb.
Distant hills were topped by the low, heavy clouds of the rainy season. In the near distance, across a run of small hills and into the Turrialba Valley, sit the white buildings of the Rawlings factory Kralik had run from its opening in 1986 until early June, when he and the company parted ways after 25 years. Kralik, who grew up in the southwest Iowa town of Creston, is a living institutional history of baseball manufacturing. He also was involved with the work during some of the 12 years Rawlings made its baseballs in Haiti.
Once upon a time, when the covers were horsehide and avoiding high domestic labor costs hadn't become SOP (standard overseas procedure) for most U.S. companies, they were made in the United States.
Rawlings moved to Costa Rica from Haiti because it offered more political stability. The factory was located in out-of-the way Turrialba, a two-hour drive from the international airport in San Jose and a three-hour drive from the country's major port, Limon, because the government made it attractive for Rawlings.
Costa Rica wanted an economic boost for an area that became a backwater when it was bypassed in the mid-1980s by the new highway from the capital, San Jose, in the country's mountainous center, to Limon on the Caribbean coast. Beachgoers and truckers bringing goods to Limon no longer stopped at the restaurants and hotels in Turrialba, a city of 30,000 where one still can find people riding horses into its center. Picking coffee and harvesting sugar cane were virtually the only jobs left, and those began going to itinerant Nicaraguans who worked for less money.
Rawlings was sold this year to sporting goods manufacturer K2, sparking speculation the new owner would move its production of major-league baseballs to an Asian country with even lower labor costs.
"Costa Rica is important to Rawlings," insisted John Rangel, chief financial officer of K2. "Making baseballs is all about consistency. Major League Baseball has a large investment in history and records. We are anxious not to do anything that brings those records into question. The Costa Rica operation is an integral part of that."
The factory began with 50 workers, including some Haitians who served as teachers. It was 1990 before the Costa Rica operation produced its first major-league balls. Rawlings employed as many as 1,900 in Costa Rica until the manufacturing of low-end balls was moved to China in 1994. It once was half-manufacturing, half-cottage industry in Costa Rica: More than half the 1,900 workers were involved in sewing the low-end balls in their homes.
All the work now is done by approximately 575 workers in the factory. Three hundred stitch baseballs for $1.21 an hour in wages and another 67 cents an hour in health and retirement benefits. Based on a five-day, 48-hour week, the pay and benefits are $90 per week or $4,681 per year. The country's per-capita annual income is $3,950, according to the Canadian International Development Agency.
Stitchers also work by number of baseballs sewn. A worker who reaches 175 can leave after three days and be paid for a full week. At 162, the worker can leave 5 1/2 hours early Friday. Bermudez said fewer than 10 of the 300 stitchers are able to leave after three days and most experienced workers sew 34 or 35 balls a day. A stitcher works for three years before being allowed to make major-league balls. Until then, they sew balls for colleges, minor leagues and high schools.
Alan Cascante, 26, has sewn baseballs for eight years. Once he finished 200 balls in four days. Many of them will have been used by major-leaguers whose average salary this year is $2,555,476, according to the Associated Press.
An interpreter asked Cascante about working for peanuts and Cracker Jack, $58.08 a week in actual salary, compared with the ballplayers. "Of course, that is not fair," Cascante said. "But we can live well on that. We never made that working in the fields."
Prior, who the AP says makes $1.45 million a year, responded with a poignant "unbelievable" when informed about the salaries of those who make the balls he throws so effectively. Milwaukee infielder Royce Clayton ($1.5 million) also appreciated the irony.
"Of course, I sympathize with anyone who is unhappy in their job, but who is to say those people are unhappy?" Clayton said. "Their economic system is different from ours. As long as the wages and working conditions are in compliance with government regulations and labor laws, I'm sure there are people there just as happy as people here making millions."
Kralik said there was just one thing guaranteed to make the workers unhappy.
"They don't realize a pitcher makes maybe $11 million a year, and they could care less," he said. "They are proud of their work. If someone said the balls were bad, they would be upset."
Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger said he once wanted to make a bet with Gene Orza, associate general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "Give me 10 balls," Remlinger would say to Orza, "and I can tell you by feel which ones are American League balls and which are National League balls." Orza never took Remlinger up on it.
"The balls in the American League were lower and wound tighter," Remlinger said. "There are still variations in balls, nothing significant, but with a pitcher holding balls all day long, you can feel them.
"Some days, the ball feels big. Some days, it feels like a golf ball. You pick up one and then you pick up another and hope it feels small, too. When all the balls feel that way, you know it's going to be a good day."
Presumed differences between the AL and NL balls are just one of the major-league myths that have sprung up, according to Rawlings, which has made the balls for both leagues since 1977. Rawlings Vice President Ken West said the only difference was the ink used on the ball--black for the NL, blue for the AL.
The balls have been similar, with the signature of Commissioner Allan Selig, since 2000.
Remlinger said he has weighed balls and found some heavier than others. That is possible. Specifications for the estimated $11 million of balls Major League Baseball and its 30 teams buy each year from Rawlings allow for a quarter-ounce difference in weight (5 to 5 1/4 ounces) and a quarter-inch difference in circumference (9 to 9 1/4 inches).
"College balls are very different," Prior said. "College seams were really high, especially before they rubbed them [with mud]. It gave you a better break and made it easier to hold the balls when you were sweating."
Kralik said 90 percent of the 3,400 dozen "professional" balls produced each week in Costa Rica would be good enough for major-league use. Between 90,000 and 100,000 dozen a year go to major-league teams for game and practice use, according to West, who said the rest are sold at retail.
A major-league ball purchased through Rawlings' Web site costs $14.99 plus $4.98 shipping. Based on a 162-ball week, a stitcher would earn 38 cents per ball.
There are humidity and temperature controls and quality controls for every ball at every phase of the operation. Weight, tension and circumference measurements are taken after each of the four stages in the winding operation. The stitchers also measure the balls. Supervisors inspect the stitches after the balls go through a machine that flattens the seams. The balls are scanned to see if a sewing needle or other foreign substance was inadvertently left inside.
Further inspection occurs as the balls are cleaned, stamped with the MLB logo and Selig's signature and packed for shipping by truck to Limon, then boat to Port Everglades, Fla., then rail to Rawlings headquarters in Springfield, Mo. Finally they are sent by truck and rail to major-league teams and stores.
Random testing is done in Costa Rica and Missouri with a pitching machine and white ash backboard (the wood used to make most bats) to see if the ball's bounce-back distance meets established criteria.
The consistency is striking, especially condering that people, not machines, do so much of the work.
"They tried to make a machine to sew baseballs, but they didn't realize how many different leather characteristics there are," Kralik said. "A person is able to compensate for that."
The sheets of leather, which have come since 1961 from Tennessee Tanning in Tullaloma, Tenn., are evaluated for softness, porosity, stretching, shadowing and other marks by workers who cut it by machine into figure-eight-shaped pieces, two of which cover each ball. The cutters try to match all those characteristics in the two pieces that cover each ball.
Under the cover are one wind of a polyester-cotton blend white thread and three winds of red-flecked gray yarn that have been supplied since 1984 by D&T Spinning in Ludlow, Vt.
At any point in the winding process, a ball that is not meeting specifications can be unwound to start again with the core, or "pill." There are three workers on each of seven winding lines at the factory, with one on each line running two machines. Rawlings does not allow photographs in the winding room to conceal the details of the machines, which the company invented.
The pill, made since 1948 by Muscle Shoals Rubber Co. in Batesville, Miss., looks and reacts like a Superball until it is wrapped. It has a center of cork and rubber covered by two layers of rubber, then coated with a glue so the yarn will adhere. Once wrapped, the balls also are coated with latex cement to hold the covers in place as they are stitched.
"The difference in balls today, I think, is that the balls were sewn together and now they are glued together," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker.
That counts as another myth. The covers are held together by the 108 v-shaped lock stitches put in each ball by a single person. The stitches are not cut or tied off. Pressure and tension created by pulling a stitch through part of the ball, not an adhesive, keeps the cover on.
"I've noticed there are no knots," Prior said.
What about the knotty problem of how many more balls are being smacked beyond fences, walls and light towers in recent years? Smaller stadiums, poorer pitching, performance-enhancing substances (and cork-enhanced bats?) all have contributed to the power surge, but few seem to accept those factors as sufficient explanation. The conventional wisdom is the ball has been juiced to bring back fans ailenated by the 1995 strike, just the way evidence suggests it was after the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
"Some people said we were putting uranium in the baseballs," offered a smiling Bermudez.
The increase in home runs during the first part of the 2000 season led Major League Baseball to ask scientists from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Baseball Research Center to examine the performance of balls used in 1999 and 2000. Their tests concluded that the balls had not changed between those seasons.
Four months later, University of Rhode Island scientists came to a different conclusion in their independent research. They found the cores of major-league balls from 1995 and 2000 bounced higher than balls from the 1960s and 1970s and contained other materials that could make them much livelier.
"The pills have never changed, and all the [other] materials have never changed," said Rawlings Vice President West.
The only noise in the stitching room of Rawlings' Costa Rica factory is the low hum of fans blowing. Supervisors move silently through the aisles, collecting finished balls and passing out covers kept supple with moisture until just before they are distributed.
Fewer than five major-league players are known to have visited the factory, most recently Hernandez before his rookie year with the Yankees. Most are surprised to learn of the handmade craftsmanship involved.
"It must be a tremendous amount of work . . . good work," said Milwaukee Brewers coach Rich Dauer, a longtime major-league infielder.
Oscar Rojas said he once sewed 67 balls in a day. When he started, four years ago, Rojas said he stabbed every part of his hands with the needle. Now he pulls the needle securely through the leather and the ball, occasionally using an awl to ensure that the stitching is even.
Like all the better stitchers, Rojas is allowed to listen to music, and his choice is romantic. One can assume even rap would not distract him, just as visitors with questions did not.
Rojas' arms took flight, opening and closing with an effect and regularity a butterfly would envy. He was making one of the balls Barry Bonds will try to hit in the All-Star Game.
PART 4 OF 4.
FRIDAY: THE CAP
SUNDAY: THE GLOVE
MONDAY: THE BAT
TODAY: THE BALL